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How Low is the Lowdown?

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"Following complaints from customers, the Commission is investigating agreements regarding hotel accommodation concluded between the largest European tour operators on the one hand (Kuoni, REWE, Thomas Cook, TUI) and hotels on the other hand (Meliá Hotels). The Commission welcomes hotels developing and introducing innovative pricing mechanisms to maximise room usage but hotels and tour operators cannot discriminate customers on the basis of their location. The agreements in question may contain clauses that discriminate between customers, based on their nationality or country of residence – as a result customers would not be able to see the full hotel availability or book hotel rooms at the best prices."

Thus sayeth the EU. Are prices different, depending on where you book them?

There are a number of features, which any agent knows, will always make any two travel bookings slightly different, one way or the other. Any EU investigation is, therefore, likely to find itself having to tackle such a conundrum.

For example, I checked prices for the Melia Benidorm Hotel for the 1st August for one week, half board, using day flights. This I checked on TUI's German as well as UK site and the prices worked out at 2182 Euros for a Brit and 2290 Euros for a German. The UK version was based on day flights from Gatwick and the German version on day flights from Frankfurt. With Frankfurt, however, there is no direct service and the German version included a flight change in Madrid. All things considered, there was no really worrying differential in price.

Interestingly, the German site quoted the price "... to include all supplements" which concerned me a little as there was no mention on the German site about hold baggage. So, I will take them at their word and assume that "all supplements" means just that - and includes, therefore, a hold bag.

Obviously Google knows where you are and who you are (frankly, Google knows far too much) and it is quite a battle to get on to the .de version of TUI rather than the .uk version. It may be done, of course.

Then I changed to the TOR browser, which browser could not give a rancid road-killed rodent where you come from and confuses the bejaysus out of any site you enter. Remarkably, the price for a Germany-based booking changed to 2182.69 Euros. The TOR browser also takes great delight in kicking out a lot of the nosy-parker interventions from a lot of those sneaky, information-gathering add-ons.

What will be of concern, here, is the possibility of any interaction between any holiday (or indeed airline or car hire or...) website and any search engine. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a search engine says to a holiday or any other travel website: "Hey! This guy booking a honeymoon lives in Kensington and is pretty much loaded" It is a highly insidious intervention and wrong on so many levels (marketing types refer to this as "tailoring the offering").

What the EU (or the regulatory body of any country) needs to look at it, is not only any possible relationship between country of origin of query and price, but also how any search engine may be reacting to the query and passing information on in the background AND/ OR how any website may use location-of-query knowledge to "tailor" whatever prices may be offered.

In the meanwhile, if you are seeking a sure, un-influenced offer then you are perhaps better off visiting a travel agent - or at least, using a browser which asks nothing, nor gives anything away.

(Murray Harrold is a homeworking business travel agent. If you would like to have your travel organised by an agent backed by an American Express agency, with full reporting systems, call 07768 180314)

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